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Comment by Helen Seymour

I’ve been trying to find somewhere to rent recently and it’s been a bit of a nightmare, to be honest. High demand, lack of places, agencies asking for earnings to be double rent (plus another half), and a severe lack of consensus over whether my hamster counts as a pet have all been tricky obstacles. But the main difficulty has been trying to find out access information. Even something as simple as which floor a property is on seems too much for a lot of letting agents. This is particularly a problem now that a lot of agencies are asking potential tenants to rent somewhere from a video viewing alone.

The video viewing thing started in the pandemic and I do understand it. Less in-person viewings = less of the virus spreading. Great news. But it’s not so great if, like me, you need to go to a place to know if you’re going to be able to physically live there.

I struggle with heavy doors. I struggle with stairs but I can manage them. I need to know how many there are, I need to know how steep they are and if there is a handrail. If it’s more than one flight (in a block of flats, for example) I could really do with a lift. I need to know if there are any outdoor steps into the building, as these are even more dangerous as obviously, the weather can make them unsafe for someone with poor balance, like me. Ideally, I need a separate shower rather than one over a bath, but these are hard to come by, so I need to check out the bathroom to see how high the side of the bath is and if there’s room to place adaptions that would make it safer for me to manage. In short, and logically I need to visit the place I’m going to pay to live at. I’m all for an initial video view to give people a good idea of what it’s like, but before any applications or payments of deposits, there needs to be the option to go and see it.

Here is an example of what I’ve come up against, with bits redacted to keep locations, etc anonymous:

Me: Hi there, I’ve just seen the property on [name of road and price] and I know you are doing a virtual tour next weekend – I’m very interested in the property but I have a disability that means some staircases are quite difficult, others I can manage (depends on how steep the stairs are, etc) I just wondered if there’s any way I could view the property one afternoon this week to check I can manage the stairs? It’s proving quite difficult to rent anywhere with only virtual viewings as it’s a fundamental access need.

Them: Thank you for your e-mail, however, due to the government guidelines [meaning the pandemic] we would require you to watch the Live Stream first before we can conduct any physical viewing. If you have any further questions please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Me: Thanks for getting back to me, ok so if I watch the virtual viewing and apply, and the landlord accepts my application… Do I have to pay a holding fee even if I haven’t seen it? Or would I be able to see it first?

Them: If the landlord accepts your offer, we can arrange a viewing.

Classic letting agent move there of dodging my question about whether I’d have to pay before I’d seen it, but during the live viewing the agent said you had to put on your application if you’re happy to rent it ‘as seen in the video,’ with no mention of a viewing being arranged after a successful application. If I put in my application that I want to see it before I pay a deposit, I reckon my chances are slim of getting accepted. The lack of clarity is exhausting.

Well okay – you might think – but that was the pandemic, unprecedented times! But now there are no restrictions, and the video viewings continue. I was told this is because of ‘high interest’ in one property. So I did the video viewing, this one was a click-through situation rather than a live stream, sort of like a video game where your objective is to look for any hidden signs of damp. The problem with the video was, there was no footage of the outside. I couldn’t work out where it was on street view. Here’s what happened:

Me: replying to an email with the application form in it: I need a little bit more information in terms of access requirements: Can you confirm the property is on the ground floor, as shown on the floor plan? Are there any steps into the property?

Them: From the front, it will appear as the first and second floor, from the rear it appears as the ground and first floor. There are a few steps to the entrance.

No, you didn’t misread that. It makes no sense. I asked for clarification, saying I really needed to know because whichever way you look at me, I’m disabled. I said ‘a few steps’ isn’t clear enough. I said this needed to pass on to a manager. They came back with:

I have made aware my manager of your feedback. As you will see from the video tour, there are stairs, steps, and raised areas all throughout the maisonette not just externally.

So, it’s not the ground floor, is it? And the ableism of assuming interior steps are the same as exterior steps is pretty awful. Like I said: weather conditions, also things like carrying bags of shopping, other people being on the stairs that could accidentally knock me over. They aren’t the same.

In the end, I got a sincere apology from the manager, admitting he’d marketed it wrong and he was going to change the details. It was never ground floor. And yet people were expected to rent it based on the information provided. That’s really, really scary.

It’s going to take a bit of time but I’m determined to make it a legal requirement to make access requirements mandatory on letting details. If anyone has any help or advice on this, let me know. My suggestion is that all letting details need to say: which floor the property is on, if there are any heavy fire doors into the property, how many steps there are into the property, if there is a handrail, if there is a lift and if so, how many times that lift has broken. The admin involved in trying to get the simplest information as to whether I can physically live somewhere is so tiring, and emotions have ranged from frustration to fear to really deep sadness. It shouldn’t be this hard. Letting agents need to do better, much, much better.

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